One of the most important decisions percussionists must make is which 4-mallet grip they will use to play marimba, vibes, and other instruments. Advice from a teacher is a great way to get started, but percussionists must eventually decide for themselves which grip works best for them and for the music they want to make. Settling on a grip is a journey, and to help guide you on your quest, I offer the following for consideration.
There is a lot of talk these days about the concept of bias. Personal biases can be based on just about anything, and everyone has them. Explicit biases are those opinions and attitudes that you are aware of having; implicit biases are attitudes that you are unaware of having. It is usually pretty easy to spot explicit bias in the form of racism, sexism, ageism, and many other isms; implicit bias is more subtle and difficult to catch. The good news is that once you understand how biases influence your decision-making process, you can learn to manage them to everyone’s benefit.
What does bias have to do with choosing—or helping someone else choose—a mallet grip? A lot, and for this I can use myself as an example. When I watch a vibraphone player using an independent grip, I have to admit that it doesn’t look right to me; this is a bias. Additionally, knowing that many of my teachers and favorite vibes players also use the cross-grip further confirms my opinion that it is the best way to play. This is another form of bias—confirmation bias—in which we tend to look for, use, or interpret information that supports our own opinions.
Percussionists are often guided to a particular grip by teachers who, understandably, often guide them to use the same technique they were taught and that works best for them. As teachers, we may find that our personal preferences and bias can prevent us from properly diagnosing a student’s best fit. This phenomenon is happening all the time across the percussion universe, and not just for mallet players; drummers and timpanists have their own biases to contend with. Teachers who learned to play a particular way, or with a particular grip, continue to teach their students to play the same way. This teacher-to-student transfer of information is to be expected and revered and, in most cases, it works. However, there are times when we need to admit that what works for us may not work for a colleague and what works for one student may not work for the next. Setting aside personal biases can be the key to helping a student unlock the secret of their own technique.
Mandating that all marimba players should use independent grip, all vibes players use cross grip, and all xylophone players must use traditional grip would be absurd, unrealistic, and a disservice to aspiring percussionists.
I am fortunate to know some great vibes players who have helped me realize my own biases about grips. Lalo Crane, vibes player and co-creator of Freckleland (freckleland.com), plays with a Musser-style grip she learned from her teacher. When I asked why she had chosen to use a “marimba grip” on the vibes, she responded, “I don’t know. I never really played the marimba growing up.” In a recent email she wrote, “My technical instruction came from a couple of video tapes plus the Stevens book that my band director ordered for me. I switched back and forth from my grip, from the Stevens book, to a more typical vibe grip, from a Dave Samuels video, and ended up feeling much more natural with the Stevens-ish grip and the intervals it inspires.”
Another example is legendary vibes player Mike Mainieri, who utilizes a unique 4-mallet grip in which he holds the outside mallets between his pinky and ring fingers. It is pretty easy to set aside personal bias when hearing him play! These players, like many others, have settled on a grip that works for them based on their needs and how they want to play.
When I feel uncomfortable watching someone play with a different grip than mine, the first thing I do is close my eyes and simply listen; I often do this as a general rule in lessons anyway. This helps remove the possibility of disliking something based on how it might look. Then, if something is preventing the student from playing well, we can begin to look closer to diagnose technical issues, apart from or related to the grip used.
It is understandable that players may not like a performance by someone using a different grip than theirs, and not really know why. Coming to terms with our implicit biases can help everyone focus on the sound of the music first. How does it sound? Can you agree that it is beautiful, articulate, expressive, accurate, and idiomatic? If so, you have made progress toward managing your biases. However, when implicit bias becomes explicit bias—thinking and saying there is only one way to successfully do something—it can be a liability to students. Mandating that all marimba players should use independent grip, all vibes players use cross grip, and all xylophone players must use traditional grip would be absurd, unrealistic, and a disservice to aspiring percussionists.
Setting aside any bias that may be present, begin the grip quest by asking yourself a few questions. Which grip gives me the most…
Comfort? Learning something new may come with some discomfort and fatigue at first. Building up muscle and stamina is key to developing skill on everything from video gaming to downhill skiing; 4-mallet playing is no different. Sore wrists and blisters are to be expected. Simply altering one aspect of the technique you are using (raising/lowering the instrument or changing hand position) could make a difference. The size and shape of your hands and grip strength are also factors in settling on a grip. Some people, through no fault of their own, are prone to carpel tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, and other repetitive-use injuries. If chronic pain or injury occurs, taking a different approach and perhaps changing grips might be advised. Regardless of your grip or level of performance, if you experience real pain, numbness, or damage for an extended period, stop and consult a teacher.
Facility and dexterity? Does the grip provide suitable control of the mallets for such things as interval changes, double strokes, permutations, etc.? Does the grip provide the power to get a full and balanced (but not harsh) sound from all four mallets?
Reach? Does the grip give me the ability to reach the notes required to play the repertoire in the style I want to play? Some marimba pieces require large intervals and, depending on the instrument, reaching those notes can be a challenge with certain grips. This might be resolved by using different (longer) mallets. Conversely, Mike Mainieri developed his mallet grip based on his desire to easily play very small intervals on the compact layout of the vibraphone.
Accuracy? Chronic missed notes, inconsistency in holding intervals, and inarticulation of notes in runs, scales, or technical passages can be an indication of a grip that is not serving you well. If you have practiced and prepared, and you know the music inside and out but continue to have accuracy issues, a change of grip might be in order.
Expression? Will the grip allow me to express myself musically and artistically in the style of music I want to play?
Inclusion/Acceptance? Will the grip allow me to become part of a musical ensemble that has an accepted standard for its members? One example is the marching percussion idiom, where uniformity is a goal.
In the end, you may also have to address your own biases and why you have them. You may say “All my friends play with a certain grip and I want to fit in.” This is an example of how your own confirmation bias is driving your judgement about what you wantto be doing rather than what you needto be doing to become a better musician.
Get training from someone who knows how to play the grip you want to play. In most cases, it doesn’t have to be someone who plays that grip but someone who has had experience learning, playing, and teaching that technique. Of course, taking your training in a specific style to the next level would benefit from the advice of a practicing expert. If you think you need a change, talk honestly to your teacher about it first and let you teacher know why you think a change would be good for you. And if your teacher suggests that you consider a change of grip, trust that your teacher has your best interest at heart, and give it a go.
If you do decide to change technique, do it right. Don’t change grips on a piece that you’ve already learned; it will be frustrating. Start fresh and experiment on a new piece. Then, be patient; give yourself time to learn and adapt to the new grip.
The quest to find a grip that is right for you may take some time. Author and motivational speaker Jim Rohn said, “It's all about making measurable progress in reasonable time.” So be open, patient, and honest with yourself, and give yourself that time. Here’s wishing you bon voyage on your quest!
Dan Moore explores the many creative and expressive capabilities of percussion, making music with inspiring performers throughout the world in an array of diverse musical settings. Dr. Moore is professor of music and percussion area head of the University of Iowa, where he has created an award-winning student-centric program that encompasses contemporary chamber music, concert percussion, electronic music, improvisation, and steel band. Iowa Percussion nurtures the serious study and creative exploration of the percussive arts, and for the last 60 years has been the training ground for many outstanding percussion performers, educators, music therapists, university professors, administrators, business leaders, and other professionals, from Thailand to Tegucigalpa.